Iran has resolved two outstanding inquiries from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) related to the presence of highly enriched uranium (HEU) particles at several sites. The confidential quarterly report by the IAEA, which is routinely leaked to the press, said inspectors no longer had questions on uranium particles found to be enriched to 83.7% at its underground Fordow facility. This had resulted in tension for the past several months although some resolution was achieved in March following a visit to Tehran by IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi. Iran had insisted at that time that those particles were a by-product of its current enrichment as particles can reach higher enrichment levels in fluctuations. “The agency informed Iran that, following its evaluation of the data, the agency had assessed that the information provided was not inconsistent with Iran’s explanation … and that the agency had no further questions on this matter at this stage,” the report said.

Investigators have also closed their investigation into traces of man-made uranium found at Marivan, near the city of Abadeh, some 525 kilometres southeast of Tehran. The USA and Israel had repeatedly linked Marivan to a secret Iranian military nuclear programme and had accused Iran of conducting high-explosives tests there in the early 2000s. The new IAEA report noted that “Iran conducted explosive experiments with protective shielding in preparation for the use of neutron detectors and nuclear material” at the site. However, it added that “another member state” operated a mine at the area in the 1960s and 1970s under the rule of then-Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The member state involved was not identified.

Iran argued that the uranium traces could have come from “laboratory instruments and equipment” used by miners at the site. The IAEA now says this is “a possible explanation”. It added: “The agency at this time has no additional questions on the depleted uranium particles detected at Marivan … and the matter is no longer outstanding at this stage.” The report said the Agency had also installed enrichment monitoring devices at Fordow and Natanz, Iran’s other main enrichment site. The IAEA acknowledged installing new cameras at a workshop in the Iranian city of Isfahan where centrifuge rotors and bellows are manufactured. It said, however, that Iran has been withholding surveillance footage from the IAEA during the recent tensions.

The IAEA report also estimated that as of 13 May, Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile was at 4,744.5 kilograms (10,460 pounds). Of that, 114.1 kilograms is enriched up to 60% purity, a short, technical step to weapons-grade levels. An IAEA estimate in February put Iran’s uranium stockpile at some 3,760 kilograms. Of that, 87.5 kilograms was enriched up to 60% purity. IAEA said that Iran’s estimated stockpile of enriched uranium has now reached more than 23 times the limit set out in nuclear deal. While Grossi reportedly said Iran now has enough uranium to produce “several” bombs, it would require many more months to build a weapon and potentially miniaturise it to put it on a missile. The US intelligence community has maintained its assessment that Iran is not pursuing an atomic bomb, Western press reports noted.

Grossi’s Tehran visit in March took place at a time when negotiation to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) had stalled. The JCPOA, signed by the USA, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany, had capped Iranian uranium enrichment at 3.67% in exchange for sanctions relief. However, in 2018, former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal and imposed crushing sanctions on Iran’s economy, prompting Iran, in turn, to increase its uranium enrichment and reduce the number of IAEA cameras monitoring its facilities – actions permitted under the JCPOA in such circumstances.

A joint IAEA-AEOI statement issued after that meeting said the high-level meetings had “addressed the importance of taking steps in order to facilitate enhanced cooperation, to expedite as appropriate the resolution of outstanding safeguards issues”. It added: “Both sides recognise that such positive engagements can pave the way for wider agreements among state parties.”

Commenting on the latest IAEA report, Iran’s Fars news agency said “With the improvement of interactions between Iran and the IAEA… the case related to one of the agency’s alleged sites – Abadeh – has been resolved…. This concludes the Agency’s inquiry into one of the three alleged locations raised.” it added. The Marivan site is is the first of the three sites to be addressed under a work plan agreed by Iran and the IAEA in March last year. The other two sites are Varamin and Turquzabad.

IAEA’s concerns about the sites are one of the remaining obstacles to the revival of the JCPOA. The Financial Times (FT) reported recently that the US, UK, France and Germany had resumed discussions on how to engage with Iran over its nuclear activity. “There is recognition that we need an active diplomatic plan to tackle Iran’s nuclear programme, rather than allowing it to drift,” according to a Western diplomat cited by the FT. reported. There has been contact with Iranian officials in recent months, including a meeting in Oslo in March between officials from the three European states (E3) and Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran’s nuclear negotiator. Rob Malley, Washington’s Iran envoy, has met several times with Iran’s UN ambassador Amir Saeid Iravani, who was a senior official at the Supreme National Security Council before being posted to New York in September, diplomats and analysts said.

Those talks are thought to be the first direct contact between US and Iranian officials since the US pulled out of the JCPOA. US President Joe Biden earlier agreed to return to the JCPOA and ease sanctions if Iran returned to compliance with the accord. However, more recently US officials have said the accord “is not on the agenda”, indicating any agreement would be more limited. Diplomats and analysts say potential options include some form of interim deal, or a de-escalatory move by both sides under which Iran would reduce its enrichment levels in return for some sanctions relief. Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert at Chatham House, said: “There are attempts at reinvigorating thinking on the crisis, and it’s highly urgent because Iran is a nuclear threshold state. Everyone is just looking for a Band-Aid.”

Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at Crisis Group, in a lengthy interview with CNN in May said sanctions against Iran have been “an abject failure across the board” and it is time for new thinking. However, he also noted that the Biden administration wants to put a lid on the situation until after the 2024 elections. He does not think a return to the JCPOA is viable for a number of reasons, not least the massive advances Iran has made in its nuclear programme, despite sanctions, and also the changing geopolitical situation in the region. He suggested some kind of compromise may be possible because of Iran’s improved relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Whereby they could be a conduit for some limited agreement on sanctions relief in return for controls on Iranian nuclear development.

However, another way of looking at the situation is to accept that Iran, as it says, has no intention of developing nuclear weapons – something it has consistently maintained – while it sees peaceful nuclear development as key to its economic development. It has weathered US sanctions since 1978 under much harsher conditions than those of the present day. With Iran’s moves to become a key partner in regional development following the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia brokered by China, and its stated intention to join the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) organisation, which is expanding its membership, sanctions have ceased to be such an issue. Iran will now be able engage in trade directly with other states regardless of US restrictions. Maybe Iran’s nuclear development should no longer be viewed as a problem, any more than the nuclear development of other non-nuclear weapons states such as Brazil, Argentina. Japan or South Korea. Maybe it is time to depoliticise the Iran nuclear issue.

Image: Centrifuge machines at the Natanz nuclear site in Iran